Gardening Resources in Los Angeles County

Opuntia illustration

Perhaps because the real estate market is heating up again, we’re getting a lot of requests for gardening resources in the Los Angeles area. It thought I’d list our favorite resources in this blog post that I can refer people to. But I need your help–please let me know in the comments if you know of a resource that I should have included.

Soil Testing
Wallace Labs. When you fill out the form check off the box for “Standard Agricultural Soil Suitability Analysis.” All healthy gardens start with a soil test and Wallace Labs will have your results delivered by email within a few days.

Arborist
Tree Care LA (Nick Araya, ISA Certified Arborist and Oscar Sanchez). Nick and Oscar did a great job with our trees. If you care about your trees, hire a certified arborist not just some dude with a chainsaw. It costs is nothing when you consider how much you’ll pay to fix the damage from a limb falling down on your roof in the next big winter storm.

Fruit Trees/Berries
Bay Laurel Nursery (mail order bare root). Order in the fall for January/February delivery. Get your order in soon as they often sell out of popular trees. Get trees with low chill hour requirements. Look up your chill hours here.

Check out Dave Wilson Nursery’s handy guide to backyard orcharding,

Do not plant any grapes that aren’t Pierce Disease resistant. And personally, I would not plant citrus.

Vegetable Gardening
When to plant: http://www.scribd.com/doc/154952660/What-to-Plant-When-in-Southern-California

Our favorite seeds, Franchi Seeds, are available at http://theheirloomseedstore.com/ and at Sunset Nursery in Silver Lake.

Vegetable gardening classes: Grow LA Victory Gardening Initiative.

Visit the Huntington Ranch for ideas and inspiration.

The Environmental Change Makers offer a number of great classes and publications: How to Get Rid of Bermuda Grass, and How to Make Your Garden GMO-free http://www.scribd.com/EnviroChangeMakers/. Booklets about high-yield organic vegetable gardening in SoCal’s unique year-round growing season http://envirochangemakers.org/publications/. Monthly organic vegetable gardening classes at the two community gardens in Westchester http://www.EnviroChangeMakers.org

Monthly vegetable gardening classes at The Learning Garden at Venice High School.

Seed Library of Los Angeles SLOLA.org (meetings and seed saving classes).

Keeping Chickens
Los Angeles Urban Chicken Enthusiasts

Beekeeping
Honeylove.org.

How to videos starring Kirk Anderson at the Backwards Beekeepers blog.

Greywater/Rainwater Harvesting
DIY option: Art Ludwig’s free laundry to landscape plans at Oasis Designs. Or buy his books, Create an Oasis with Greywater: Choosing, Building and Using Greywater Systems – Includes Branched Drains and Water Storage: Tanks, Cisterns, Aquifers, and Ponds for Domestic Supply, Fire and Emergency Use. Brad Lancaster’s book: Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond (Vol. 2): Water-Harvesting Earthworks

Greywater Corp (design, installation and classes)

Retail Nurseries
Apartment Therapy has a good list.

Annie’s Annuals (mail order from SF Bay area).

Garden Design/Maintenance
Help me out here readers–if you know of some good folks leave a comment . . .

Getting my Ham Radio License

1955-how-to-become-a-radio-amateur

I often find myself doing a kind of cultural dumpster diving, searching for forgotten activities waiting to be rediscovered. Most of this scavenging takes place at Los Angeles’ massive central library on lower level two, where all the how-to books are shelved.  This month I’m finally acting on something I’ve contemplated for years: getting my amateur radio (i.e. Ham) technician’s license. I’ll be taking the test in the middle of the smart phone era.

Curiously, when I’m deep in the cultural dumpster I often run into fellow scavenger John Michael Greer, a.k.a. the Archdruid. When I met him at the Age of Limits conference he held court on some of my favorite forgotten ideas: appropriate technology, fraternal societies and Ham radio. A Ham himself, Greer recommended I read an amazingly odd book, Instruments of Amplification, which actually has directions for building your own transistors from junk. I’ll probably never get around to any of those projects, but I of A may be the ultimate DIY text.

But I’m not just being contrarian. I’m looking forward to being of service to my community in the event of a disaster such as an earthquake.

I’m curious to know if any of our readers are Hams? Leave a comment . . .

How to save tomato seed

tomato seeds rotting in water

Seeds fermenting in water. Not pretty, but pretty important! The jar got shaken up while walking it outside for its photo op., so it looks a little cloudy and messy. In your jar, you should see a layer of scum on top of the water.

I can’t believe we haven’t posted about this before–it seems like we have, but I can’t find the post if this is so. Perhaps we wrote about it in one of our books…the old brain is getting foggy.

It’s easy to save seed from your favorite tomatoes. Seed saving in general is actually a little tricky. You can’t just save the seed from any old vegetable in your garden and hope that it will yield plants like the parent. Cross-breeding is an issue. Professional seed savers use all sorts of sacks and screens and boxes to ensure that busy bees or flirtatious winds don’t make romance happen where it ought not. Otherwise you get acorn squash crossing with melons and who knows what not. It depends on the type of vegetable you want to save seed from–as well as what else you’re growing around it.

Tomatoes, however, are a pretty safe bet for seed saving. They are self-fertile, and the structure of their flowers makes cross pollination difficult. Our seed saving Bible, Seed to Seed, says that there are only three types of open pollinated tomatoes that you can’t save seed from (without putting them in isolation):

  1. Currant tomatoes (L. pimpinellifolium)
  2. The potato leaved varieties of L. lycopersicum
  3. Any fruit born from double blossoms on Beefsteak-type tomatoes. Double blossoms are prone to cross-pollination.  You can save seeds from fruit that came from a single blossom

Odd, but simple! You can basically save seed from almost any heirloom/open-pollinated variety you’re likely to  be growing. You cannot save seed from hybridized plants. These are the type you are most likely to find in the nursery–plants bred for performance, not seed saving. This would include popular breeds like Early Girl and Better Boy and Sun Golds.  If you’re not sure if your tomatoes are hybrids or not, just Google the name. The Internet is wonderful that way.

The process of saving tomato seed is simple. All you have to do is rot off the protective gel sack which surrounds each seed. This gel inhibits germination, keeping the seeds from germinating while still in the tomato. In nature, the gel rots off while the fallen tomato sits on the ground. Here, you will speed the process along with some water. In addition to removing the gel sack, this fermentation process also kills many seed-borne tomato diseases.

How to Save Tomato Seed

  1. Choose your best, tastiest tomatoes for seed saving.
  2. Scoop out the seed pulp and drop it into a jar. Or just squeeze a whole tomato over the jar.   It’s best to just squeeze cherry tomatoes. (You can use food processor, too, if you’re doing big batches.)
  3. Pour a little water over the pulp. It should cover the pulp by say, 2-3  inches or so.
  4. Cover the container and let it sit for a few days (3 days, roughly–weather makes a difference), until white or grey mold forms on the surface of the water. If you do a big batch, you will smell the rot. Don’t worry about it–just keep the dogs away! Watch for the mold to form and continue on to the next step. The mold may be impressively fuzzy, or it may just be a slight opaque slick on top of the water. Don’t let it sit in this state too long, or the seeds will start germinating in their bath.* If you’re in doubt as to whether it is ready, it’s ready. Far better to stop a little early than to let the seeds accidentally germinate.
  5. Pour off the moldy water, reserve the seeds.
  6. Add clean water back to the seeds and give the water a swirl. Let it settle. Any bad seeds will rise to the top. If they do, pour them off.
  7. Strain the seeds with a fine strainer (a teas strainer is fine for small batches) and spread them out to dry. They need to dry on something which will wick water away, because it is important that they dry quickly–otherwise they might germinate. Coffee filters work well, as do pieces of window screen, or paper plates. Tomato seeds stick to paper towels, so if you use those you may end up having to plant the seeds on their little bits of towel.
  8. Once they are bone dry, transfer to envelopes or glass jars for storage. Be sure to label!

*I just lost a batch to germination. I blame the heat. It didn’t seem like they’d be fermenting that long, but after I drained my seeds I saw the tiny little white nubbins poking out of the seeds. Now I have to begin again. This is one reason why you should not wait ’til your last tomato to think about saving seeds. Also, this is a reminder to keep a close eye on your projects!

ETA: We’ve had some comments from what I’ll call the Paper Towel School of seed saving, and I thought I’d amend this post to point out that another method is to just spread some tomato pulp on a paper towel and let it dry out. The seeds will stick to the towel, so you store the whole towel and when planting time comes next year, you tear the towel into tiny pieces and plant the pieces. This does save steps. The method described above is the Official Method, and the method I’ve always used. I’ve not tried the paper towel thing myself, but it seems sensible. However, as  I understand it, the fermentation process in the water bath method kills diseases, so it is considered good etiquette to put your seeds through this process if you plan to share them with others.

Also check out the comments for more on the mystery of cross-pollinating tomatoes!

Picture Sunday: Amazon’s “Rasta Imposta” Squirrel Costume

Screen shot 2013-08-10 at 9.42.40 AM

If I get one of these and run around the yard would squirrels be so confused that they’d leave my fruit trees alone?

From the Amazon reviews:

it even comes with nuts
By squirrelman
When I first saw this squirrel costume, I went a little nuts (pun intended :) ). I starting buying one for everyone I knew. My wife, kids, lawyer, dentist, family practitioner, our local barista, and even my boss. Needless to say, we all suited up for halloween and went out as a dray (for those of you not as into squirrels as I am, a dray is what a group is called!)

It was the most amazing time ever. Almost everyone said that our costumes were the bomb. Well everyone except Ted. That guy’s a real jerk!

And:

Not well made
By Jaime
Got this product for Halloween…. Wore it out and blowing up the tail alone took over 30 minutes of continuous blowing. Got light headed and had to take multiple breaks in fear of passing out. The back velcro holding it together was super cheap and didn’t stick or hold well. The hat/hood/top/head was very difficult and continuously slid down over my eyes throughout the night and I was quite annoyed. The nuts….. well just throw those in the trash because they stick to your hands for about 1 minute and fall off, and no one wants to hold nuts all night. I would recommend you get a different squirrel suit elsewhere and not this one.

And what exactly makes this squirrel costume “rasta?”

Maintaining a Worm Bin

worm bin 1

This image might represent a new low in aesthetics from the Root Simple Photo Department. And that’s saying something.

I freshened up our big worm bin today and I thought I’d report on what I did because I get a lot of questions about worm bin maintenance.

First, I want to say this is just how I go about it. Other people will have different methods and habits. Worms are forgiving and reasonably adaptable, so you have a whole lot of leeway in keeping a bin. As long as you don’t let the worms dehydrate, drown, bake, or utterly starve, you’re going to be okay.

Our worm bin is pretty big (5 feet long), and made of pine boards.  It bears an unfortunate resemblance to a coffin, but it works wonderfully. I used plastic storage totes for my worm bins before we built this, and while those worked fine, I really like my big bin for two main reasons. The first is the size. It can take whatever I throw at it. It takes all my kitchen scraps, except for the really choice stuff that goes to the chickens. The second selling point is that the wood breathes, and that seems to make the worms happy.

Maintaining the Bin

The Conceptual Divide

I divide my bin into two areas, left and right. There’s no physical barrier between the sides, just a conceptual distinction. Usually one side is working and the other side is resting. This division is easy to make in a long, skinny bin like mine, but can be managed in a smaller bin as well.

Basically, once you’ve got a worm bin going, there will come a time when you’ll need to harvest some of the castings. Those castings are valuable in the garden, and the worms don’t want to live in their own waste. You’ll know its getting close to harvest time when you see pockets of scraps here and there, but mostly the texture of the contents looks like soil or coffee grounds. Or maybe fudge, if it’s more wet and compact. Fudge is a less than ideal environment for worms.

In the picture at the top you’ll see my most recent working side. There’s a lot going on in there still, some big food pockets, wood shavings everywhere, but the texture is becoming too black and dense overall. Compost worms like a little air, a little “wiggle room” and a diversity of habitat. It was past time to change this working side to a resting side.

Resting comes before harvest. This is where dividing the bin in two comes into play. Resting means no more feeding, so that the worms will finish up whatever bits of food are left around. But of course you can’t starve out your worms, so you only rest half of the bin at a time.  To do this, you put your food scraps on one side only. The worms on the resting side will finish up whatever food pockets remain and then migrate over to the active side for the fresh grub.

This doesn’t happen quickly. I’ve never made note of how long migration takes–it will vary, depending on many factors. I just poke around in the resting side whenever I happen to think about it. If I don’t see anything recognizable beyond non-digestibles, like avocado pits, fruit stones and egg shell shards, and I know it’s ready for harvest.

There will also be a few worms left, no matter how long you wait. More on them later. If your bin is outdoors, other insects like sow bugs might be in there too, but are harmless.

This is the process in a nutshell:

When your bin is looking mostly done, ie full of castings, rest one side of it. This means you feed only on the opposite side. When all the recognizable scraps are gone from the resting side, you harvest the castings. Then you can put fresh bedding in the empty space, and start encouraging the worms to move to that side.  Soon, you will be able to rest the opposite side of the bin, and eventually harvest it. And so it goes, back and forth.

Continue reading…

Smurfs Team Up With US Forest Service

smurfs_ooh

When I saw this ad at a bus stop I thought I had fallen into some kinds of post-modern hall of mirrors. At first I could not believe that it was real. Is the Forest Service really pushing our magnificent National Forests with an ad depicting a simulated forest populated by the Belgian version of Hobbits*? How could I begin to write about this?

A look at the website reveals that the Forest Service has entered into a co-branding arrangement with Sony Pictures (who took a break from helping remove our green bike lane). According to the Hollywood Reporter Sony’s work on this campaign was done “pro bono.” Of course, they do have a Smurf movie coming out this summer. The DiscoverTheForest website explains it all:

As inhabitants of the forest, Smurfs are the perfect ambassadors for forest recreation. As these new PSAs remind us, the forest provides benefits such as clean air and fresh water, and provides children with the ability to explore, use their imaginations, discover new wildlife and engage in unstructured and adventurous play. The Smurfs’ enthusiasm for their environment hopes to inspire families to create their own forest adventure and reap the many rewards that nature has to offer.

Are we slipping into a terminal nature estrangement syndrome here? A complete break with reality? Are we so detached from the actual forest that the folks at the Forest Service would think this is a good idea?

On a completely off topic side note–can someone tell me why the Smurfs wear phrygian caps? Are they revolutionaries?

*Mrs. Homegrown would like to register her disagreement re: the hobbit/smurf comparison. Mr. Homegrown has an underdeveloped understanding of magical creature taxonomy.

The tale of the worm bin celery

parsley flower

This is related to my recent post about our flowering radish. It’s a tale of botanic dumpster diving and another reason why you should let your food plants go to flower when you can.

Last year I threw the crown (which is to say, the bottom) of a celery plant in my worm bin. I probably should have chopped it up for the worms’ sake, but I didn’t. Later, sometime in the fall,  I rediscovered the celery crown. Instead of rotting in the bin, it had sprouted leaves and looked surprisingly vigorous. So I pulled it out and popped it into an empty space in one of our raised beds.

I didn’t have much hope. Celery doesn’t like our climate much, and I consider it one of those plants which is easier to buy than to grow.

To my surprise, the plant did quite well, though it did have a feral quality to it, despite its mild domestic origins. It didn’t grow fat, moist stalks which can be used to scoop up peanut butter. It grew stringy, dark green stalks which tasted powerfully of celery. It made excellent stock, and chopped into fine pieces, it was good in soup, too. Since I don’t eat much raw celery, this suited me fine.

All winter long I used this plant as the basis of my cold-weather cooking–chopped onions, carrots and celery in the bottom of every pot. It was a real treat not to have to buy celery for such a long time, and to have that flavor available whenever I wanted it. I should add that the leaves were just as flavorful as the stalks

As a side note, I’ve heard of a breed of celery made to work precisely this way, called cutting celery, but I’ve never grown it intentionally. The celery in this post looks very much like my homegrown “cutting celery.” Perhaps commercial celery wants to revert to this?

Months later, the hot weather arrived, the celery started to bolt (that is, send up flower stalks). When a plant bolts, it puts all its energy into flowering. At that point, its not much use to us as food. I was sad to lose my bottomless celery supply, but I was excited about the flowers.

Pollinating insects love celery blossoms. Actually, they adore the whole family of plants to which celery belongs, called Apiaceae or Umbelliferae (which I tend to call Umbrella Fae, which is wrong, but right in my head). This family includes carrots, celery, dill, coriander, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, etc. If you can let any of this family bloom in your garden, do.

The parsley flowers grew almost as tall as me, and they were surrounded by clouds of tiny insects every day –shy, tiny little pollinators that I can’t name.

I love to let things go to flower and seed in the garden, because it is a way of giving back to the rest of nature. Flowers for the insects, seeds for birds. And by giving back, you help balance your garden. We’ve had significantly less issues with destructive insects since we learned to let our garden go a little wild.

Sadly, this celery never got to seed, because it collapsed under its own weight one day. Its thick, hollow stalks folded and the head of the plant fell to the patio.  I had hoped to save a little seed and try to grow a plant the next year from scratch. But now I’m thinking I’m going to throw a whole crown of celery in the worm bin this fall, and hope this happens all over again.

collapsed parsley plant

Radish Surprise

radish close

A volunteer radish–I think it is a daikon–sprouted up in a little clear pocket of our yard. We let it go, ignored it. It grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Usually a radish is harvested early, so we never see how big they can get.

This one got huge, then burst out into hundreds of tiny purple flowers. Hummingbirds, honey bees and all sorts of flying insects visit it all day, every day. It has become one of the queens of the garden.

The picture below is horrible. The radish plant really is quite pretty,  the equal of any ornamental flowering shrub–but as bad is the picture is, it gives you some scale. See the bales of our straw bale garden behind it?  I think it must be pulling water from there, which accounts for its size and longevity. It’s gone a little past its prime now– a couple of weeks ago the blooms were thicker.

By the way, radish blossoms are tasty food for people, too.

radish flower

All Hail Our Succulent Overlords

succulent

Nature made this. It’s growing in a pot on our front porch. I am in a state of wonder and amazement. It is so perfect in all its parts, so regal and confident, that I just want to kneel down before it and say “I am not worthy to be in your presence, 0 plant god. I am nothing but a flabby, destructive primate.”

I don’t know the name of this succulent– and I know someone is going to ask! Does anybody know the name of this plant? Below is a pic of the rosette from which this rare flower has sprung. It’s none too shabby, either, obviously. But I never expected it had such beautiful secrets hidden inside.

suc top copy

A Backyard Bioshelter

Jonathan Bates of Holyoke, Massachusetts has a nifty greenhouse he calls his “backyard bioshelter.” He uses it to grows veggies year round in a climate that often goes well below 0°F. An aquaponics setup and a worm bin are also integrated into the shelter. And he’s even trying to grow avocados!

You can keep up with what he’s doing on his blog at permaculturegreenhouse.com.

Thanks to the Natural Building Blog for the link.